»  National Review Online

September 25th, 2002

  In Which Your Correspondent Reads a French Novel


I hasten to say that this is not the first French novel I have read. There was a period of my life when I read little else but French novels. (In translation, let me add. Having mastered the label on the HP Sauce bottle in childhood, I found that the desire to read texts in actual French thereupon left me, never to return.) My French-novel period was very brief, to be sure: it lasted from about age 19½ to 19¾, just sufficent to take me through four novels by Jean-Paul Sartre and three by Albert Camus — a sort of canon for aspiring intellectual snobs in my teen years. Moreover, my childhood reading — and I am speaking about a childhood in which I did very little else but read — included several French authors, notably Victor Hugo and Jules Verne. (What on earth gave Disney the idea that The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a suitable story for children? It scared me senseless around age ten.) I find that I know the plot of Madame Bovary, so I suppose I must have read that at some point, too. Oh, and a couple of years ago, just to see how it was done, I made a decent start on Georges Perec's A Void, which is written entirely without the letter "e." (Even more amazing, it was originally written in French without the letter "e"; then Gilbert Adair translated it into English, also without using "e." Some people have way too much time on their hands.) That's about it, though, so far as French literature is concerned. Balzac? Baudelaire? Zola? Nope, sorry. The less said about my interaction — I mean, total lack of interaction — with Proust, the better; the last time I wrote about that, I got pulled over and ticketed by the Poofter Patrol.

So it was quite a departure for me when, over this past weekend, I read Michel Houellebecq's novel The Elementary Particles. You may have heard of M. Houellebecq. (Pronounced "Wellbeck." I was annoyed to find, reading him up, that he was born Michel Thomas. Couldn't he have stayed Michel Thomas, and saved us all a lot of squinting and stuttering? Did he have to make such a damn nuisance of himself? Of course he did. He's French.) He is the writer currently on trial in Paris for having said, in an interview with a literary magazine, that he thought Islam is "the most stupid of all religions." In today's Europe, where the forces of "diversity" have advanced into territory they will not occupy over here for, oh, at least another three years, saying rude things about Islam will land you in court. That is where M. Houellebecq has landed. Four Muslim organizations brought an action against him for "incitement to religious and racial hatred."

You can read about l'Affaire Houellebecq (see? I can do the hifalutin French tags with the best of 'em) in your newspaper, or here, here, or here. I'm not writing about the court case. I'm writing about this novel of his, The Elementary Particles. See, when I passed a comment about M. Houellebecq in The Corner last week, faithful reader Rob Dakin of Athens, Ohio, promptly went out to his local library, took out the novel, read it, and started sending me penetrating comments about it. Now, if there's one thing that vexes me, it's a reader who knows more about something than I do. Since there is only one of me, and an innumerable host of readers, I mostly just have to put up with the vexation. This one time, though, I acted, taking the book out of my local library and reading it myself over the weekend.

The first thing I want to say is that it strikes me as an honest kind of book. That's a matter of tone and "diction" — the kind of thing a reader has to guess about; but I've read enough books and enough literary biographies to feel pretty confident that I know when a writer is just being himself, and when he's striking a pose. In The Elementary Particles, my guess is that M. Houellebecq is being himself.

Which means that he is a pretty awful person, a judgment fortified by what has been coming out about his life, habits and opinions. The book deals with the careers of two half-brothers, born in the late 1950s, and of course French. The older has a nondescript job "in the public sector," and most of what we read about him concerns his sex life, which seems to me pretty unsatisfactory. The younger becomes a researcher in the field of molecular biology, but is sexually inhibited. Both eventually find true love; but both the loved women die tragically soon after being found. The scientist takes his own life, but not before laying the groundwork for a tremendous biological revolution that leads, in the third decade of the 21st century, to the abolition of sex and death. The other half-brother ends up in an institution, his sex drive sedated away. Sex and death: you want modern Lit. Fic. — here it is.

If the book sounds awful, that's because it is awful — while at the same time, as I pointed out, not dishonest. From which it follows, as I also said, that M. Houellebecq must be a seriously unpleasant fellow. The novel is in fact, at some fairly obvious level, autobiographical. The mother of the two half-brothers, for instance, ships them both off to be raised by grandparents, while she herself wallows in the hippie lifestyle, flitting from guru to commune to New Age self-help fad, until at last, in the words of the older half-brother: "Apparently the old whore converted to Islam, to Sufi mysticism, or some such bullshit." Curious: at or before the age of six, Houellebecq's own mother left his father for a relationsip with a Muslim gentleman, and converted to Islam. Little Michel (born, like the younger of the two half-brothers in the novel, in 1958) was sent to live with his paternal grandmother.

Now, the rule is that everybody is allowed one autobiographical novel, preferably unpublished. After that, a novelist is supposed to make stuff up. It is true that this excellent rule has fallen by the wayside in recent years; but then, it is also true that most of the literary fiction published during those years has been unreadable. I can speak here with an air of lofty virtue. I have published two novels. The principal of the first was a Chinese man; the principal of the second was a Chinese woman. Their professions were: banker, opera singer. Since I am neither Chinese nor a woman, know next to nothing about banking and can't carry a tune even if provided with the proverbial sack, I can at least claim to have tried my best with the thing about making stuff up.

One's impression that M. Houellebecq is a nasty piece of work, without much talent, is confirmed by the interviews that have been published in the London papers. "A self-proclaimed heavy drinker and sex maniac" — The Times. "A classic French literary poseur … Invariably pictured with a cigarette dangling at an existential angle" — The Independent. "Entirely humorless" — Anita Brookner (well, she should know).

His "tendency," to judge from this novel, is nihilist. He seems to hate humanity, to hate life in fact. One is not surprised to read that the author has had several nervous breakdowns. He several times mentions Aldous Huxley, mainly to argue that Brave New World did not go far enough.

The fact that M. Houellebecq's novels sell in the hundreds of thousands tells us a great deal about the state of affairs in modern Europe — perhaps even, in modern Western culture at large. Say what you like about Muslims, I bet they are not writing novels about the abolition of sex and death. The Elementary Particles is full of graphic sex, but almost entirely of the recreational kind, a large part of it solitary or anonymous, and written in a way that leaves you wondering a bit about the author's actual capacity in this department. The average number of children per couple in this book is 0.6. I note that M. Houellebecq's single nonfiction book to date has been a biography of the American gothic writer H.P. Lovecraft — the guy who, as I noted a month or so ago, opened one of his stories with the words: "Life is a hideous thing." (And who died without issue; though his wife, quoted in August Derleth's biography, declared him a "satisfactory" lover.)

In short, this is Swift, but lacking Swift's powers of imagination and political experience, and with the "fierce indignation" dulled by hedonism, atheism and solipsism.*  Not the kind of person one would choose to bear the standard of freedom of opinion. To make matters worse, this talentless Gallic creep is squirming on the witness stand. "Mr Houellebecq told the court: 'I have never shown the slightest contempt for Muslims but I have always held Islam in contempt'," the Daily Telegraph quotes him as saying. What a crock! Can you hold a religion in contempt while not feeling "the slightest contempt" for its adherents? A person with superb powers of intellectual discipline and self-control might manage it, but M. Houellebecq does not strike me as that kind of person. To put it mildly.

Naturally, we have to support the jerk. Muslims who come to live in Western countries must accustom themselves to the fact that being rude about religion, whatever you may think of the practice (I don't think much of it myself), has a long and not entirely dishonorable pedigree among us — in the case of France, going back at least as far as Voltaire. (At the court of Frederick the Great, where Voltaire spent considerable time, Macaulay tells us that: "The absurdity of all the religions known among men was the chief topic of conversation.") For better or worse, blasphemy laws are no longer operative in any important Western country. That is how we are. If visitors and immigrants don't like it, the remedy for their discomfort is rather obvious.

* Swift's self-chosen epitaph was: "Where fierce indignation can no longer tear his heart." (Ubi saeva indignatio ulterius cor lacerare nequit.)